Written by Mathew Otieno
The ambassador of Italy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was murdered on February 22. Forty-three-year old Luca Attanasio, who had headed the Italian mission in Kinshasa since 2017, was travelling along a dirt road in the east of the DRC when his two-vehicle convoy was ambushed by militants.
In an apparent kidnap attempt, the attackers killed the Congolese driver, Mustapha Milambo, and led the ambassador, his Italian bodyguard, Vittorio Iacovacci, and the other passengers into the adjacent Virunga National Park. Shortly thereafter, they were routed by park rangers — but the ambassador and his companions were caught in the crossfire. The bodyguard died on the spot. The ambassador was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he passed away from his injuries.
The DRC is a dangerous place for diplomats. Mr Attanasio is the second ambassador to die a violent death there. In 1993 the French ambassador was killed in his office in Kinshasa by a stray bullet fired by rioting troops.
To understand the significance of this tragedy, you need to understand the bigger tragedy that is the DRC. This vast country in the dead centre of Africa has been tormented by instability since the early 1990s. Before that, it was ravaged by corrupt, kleptocratic, and downright evil governments.
Also read: Developing clean energy potential in the DRC
By one estimate, about 130 armed groups operate in its hilly east. These include the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army and relative newcomers, like the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (IS-CAP). Others, notably the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the primary suspect in the killing of the ambassador, have a long history of involvement in the instability.
The FDLR is made up of Hutu militants who fled from Rwanda into the DRC as Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front took over the country and stopped the 1994 genocide. When Rwanda pursued the FDLR into the DRC, a civil war began which toppled Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled the DRC since 1965. It grew into the so-called African World War.
In the last four years alone, militias in eastern DRC have killed an estimated 4,000 civilians. So bad is the situation that some commentators have argued that the world’s outrage at the killing of the Italian ambassador and his bodyguard is tasteless hypocrisy. The people of the eastern DRC live and die in this reality every day. The world doesn’t mourn for them.
With respect to the two Italians and to the millions (yes, millions) of dead, maimed, and raped citizens of the DRC, I think that it is better to look to the future than mourn the past.
And that future is not as hopeless as you might expect from viewing the aftermath of mindless violence in the media.
Despite his tragic death, Mr Attanasio is a kind of symbol of this. He was on his way to visit a feeding programme run by the World Food Program (WFP) at a school in Rutshuru, a small town about 70 kilometres north of Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province.
The work of agencies like the WFP, which provide food and other assistance to school children has begun to have an impact. While enrolment is still low by global standards (as of 2019, 3.5 million primary school age children were not in school), it has never been better.
Only 5.5 million children were in school in 2002. By 2018, DRC classrooms were bubbling with 17 million of them. Retention and transition to higher levels of education has also been rising steeply. Even more, accelerated literacy programmes run by agencies like USAID for mature children and adults have contributed to wider coverage and dramatic improvements in literacy.
The importance of education for human development cannot be overstated. It might even be the most important factor in boosting a country’s odds of overcoming poverty. The DRC’s massive gains in this sector, therefore, shouldn’t be overlooked. If current trends continue, the country will have a well-educated population to tackle its challenges.
While researching this article, I spoke with a Congolese student who has been studying at a Kenyan university for two years. He hails from Goma, is well acquainted with the road along which the Italian ambassador was attacked, and has relatives living in the town to which he was headed. He is familiar with grim stories but he also represent hope that better times are coming.
Instability still threatens gains in education and healthcare. And, as The Economist notes in its recent treatment of another African crisis, this presents a conumdrum:
“It is that of trying to improve security—which is almost impossible to do without development—and also drive development—which cannot happen without better security.”
Even in this regard, there is room for hope. Believe it or not, the security situation in the DRC is improving. Despite the tragedy, the road along which the ambassador was travelling had has been recently cleared for travel without security escorts.
That decision was obviously premature. But it suggests that even this remote region is slowly opening up for commerce for wary traders. Those responsible for security in the area, the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) and the DRC army, are making real progress.
The challenges faced by the DRC are monumental. And it will be a long time before they fade away. But there is more to the story than bloodletting. The DRC is a country of people who, in the face of terrible adversity, continue to work and hope and dream, and are resolutely leading their country into the future.
Thanks to them and to the assistance of international partners, the odds are good that that future will be better. It is even possible that the worst is behind them. And since the DRC will be the tenth largest nation in the world in 2050, that is something in which we all have a stake.